Nearly 30 years ago a rebellion broke out in the West. It was ignited in large part by ranchers fed up with how the federal government, largely through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, was overseeing public lands that the ranchers grazed their cattle on.
At one point the rebellion reached such a point that legislatures in New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona passed measures calling on the federal government to turn federal lands over to the states. Of course, that never happened, as President Reagan and his Interior secretary, the controversial James Watt, pacified the ranchers.
But the quiet didn't last, as those behind the movement regained traction under the first President Bush, upset that the federal government was actually working to protect public lands and increase grazing fees.
Anyway, to make a long story somewhat shorter, the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion has simmered off and on for the past few decades, and now seems to be building momentum. Helping forward the movement's intentions in Congress is none other than Representative Stevan Pearce of New Mexico, who I don't ever expect to be considered a friend of the national park system.
Mr. Pearce, as you might recall, heads the House parks subcommittee. As such, he's held hearings on whether the National Park Service Organic Act needs to be tinkered with and what must be done to boost visitation to the national parks.
The Republican's latest busy work has been to propose legislation that, in essence, would allow counties throughout the West to take control of just about any dirt path that they maintain is a road simply by showing that the route in question existed on a map prior to 1976. And many of those paths wind through national parks.
If this sounds familiar, it should, as it's a spin-off of the battle festering around Revised Statute 2477, a Civil War-era piece of legislation that some state and county officials in the West thinks gives them title to weary old two tracks, cattle paths, and other scant traces of transportation corridors across federal lands.
Mr. Pearce, you see, thinks the process counties must pursue to gain control of roads via R.S. 2477 claims is too demanding and has come up with a proposal that would let the counties achieve the same outcome simply by producing a map or survey from 1975 or earlier that shows the road they want.
As Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Pearce's bill would permit local governments to claim rights of way through national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and military bases, provided the routes appear on any official map or survey made before 1976. According to his bill, such documents can include land office plats and "tourist maps."
Critics say the bill, which was introduced Friday, is a giveaway of public land that would open up more of the nation's parks and wilderness areas to motorized travel.
You can find the rest of Julie's story here.
Now, Mr. Pearce didn't dream up this legislation all by himself. Actually, the Western Counties Alliance, which I must sadly say it based here in Utah, drafted the legislation and asked him to tote it. Which is really kinda of funny in an ironic way, since Mr. Pearce, normally doesn't talk to anyone living outside of his congressional district.
Anyway, the group describes itself as a "coalition of rural, primarily Western public lands counties which have joined together to exert greater influence on federal natural resources management policies.
"The Alliance aggressively supports a balanced, multiple use approach to managing the public’s lands and resources, because this approach has been proven to best serve the public interest from the national, state and local perspective."
It's goals, by the way, include "reforming the Wilderness Act" and "reforming the Endangered Species Act."
But back to Mr. Pearce's legislation. According to Mark Habbeshaw, a county commissioner in Kane County, Utah, which is home to a good portion of Bryce Canyon National Park, this measure would let his county claim a right to every hiking trail across the park, according to Julie's story.
"We could argue that our rights of way across the national parks are valid, and we want them opened up as road today," he told her. "We've made no effort and will not make an effort to do so."
As Kristen Brengel of The Wilderness Society said in response to Mr. Pearce's legislation, "It's so sweeping that it's almost impossible to believe."